An alarming increase: Police see influx of suicide attempts, mental health calls

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By July 31, 2017, Colchester police had responded to 40 suicide attempts in town — just one shy of the number seen in all of 2016.

Chief Jennifer Morrison predicts that number will stretch into the 70s by the end of this calendar year. The projected figure would dwarf the attempts logged in at least the past four years.

“At the end of the day, our job is to protect this community,” Morrison said. “And sometimes we have to protect this community from itself.”

Morrison is confident her numbers paint a true picture of the goings on in Colchester. She attributes the recent spike to an “alarming” increase in attempted suicides, coupled with more stringent tracking and proactive policing.

But in nearby police departments, leaders say a combination of inconsistent training and record-keeping roadblocks has clouded their own datasets, rendering objectively inaccurate results.

The Sun requested statistics on attempted suicides, completed suicides and mental health calls from 2013 to the beginning of 2017 from Colchester, Essex and Milton police departments.

Essex Police Cpt. Rick Garey prefaced his department’s answer with a clear caveat: “The numbers are going to be off.”

The provided data, shown in a graphic on page 3 shows stark discrepancies among the three towns. Colchester’s yearly mental health calls consistently top 150. In Essex and Milton, the same numbers rarely reach double digits.

“It seems low,” Milton Police Chief Brett Van Noordt said in his office last week as he scanned the data set.

“It seems extremely low,” MPD Sgt. Stephen Laroche emphasized. He’d responded to a call where mental health was a factor just that morning.

All three departments said their mental health incident responses could be filed into a variety of circumstance codes, anything from “disturbance” to “suspicious event” in the electronic record system.

The same is true for attempted suicides: A call might be recorded in as a “domestic incident” or “medical event” even if the subject used suicidal language during the police response.

Essex PD uses a system called Spillman, while Milton and Colchester use the more recently developed software Valcour.

But both technologies allow officers to check a box indicating that mental health was a factor in any call, regardless of the aforementioned circumstance code used.

That’s a feature Morrison – who helped design Valcour – said Colchester PD uses consistently, and one that directly impacts the accuracy of its year-end totals.

“Every agency gets to decide how they want to track things,” Morrison said. “[But] I’m grateful for that level of minutiae and to be able to drill down and find out what’s happening in my community. It’s really important to me that if we’re going to protect this community … that we know what we’re up against.”

In Milton, Laroche and Van Noordt admitted the checkbox isn’t used properly in their department, calling it largely a training issue.

Garey agreed that was a factor in Essex, but noted the mental health checkbox was added to Spillman “fairly recently.”

“When new codes come in, it sometimes takes some reminders of, ‘Hey remember, if you’re dealing with this type of case, you need to add a code,’” Garey said. “So it’s a lot of labor and having to make sure that the data is correct.”

Still, he said Essex police can — and have — arrived at more accurate numbers by reading through every archived narrative written by their officers and determining whether drug abuse, for example, was a factor previously not included in the coding system.

That method is labor-intensive, however, and requires far more staff time than running a computerized report, he said.

But even without those specific numbers in hand, Garey said he knows there has been a significant increase in mental health calls in Essex and countywide.

“It doesn’t even make me blink to think that we’ve got a couple hundred in a year,” Garey said, referring to Colchester’s numbers. “In fact, I think we probably have more.”

Unequivocally, all three departments said these calls place a significant strain on already-limited police time. With her numbers in hand, Morrison said she’s hoping to curb the resource drain.

Colchester is partnering with South Burlington PD to actively pursue funding for an embedded mental health officer, a position modeled after Burlington Police’s street outreach team.

Mental health and suicide numbers in Colchester clearly prove the need, Morrison said, and may help secure grants and other financial support for the position.

“If you’re trying to get somebody to give you money to solve a problem, you’ve got to have the right data,” Morrison said. “It’s only one piece, but to me it’s an important piece of what’s going on.”

    Laroche said Milton PD desperately needs the same support from a mental health officer but knows its provided statistics don’t send the same message. He thought that might be detrimental if Milton tried to secure similar outside funding.

“Yes,” Van Noordt confirmed. “That would hurt us.”

Behind the numbers

Years ago, Colchester Police Cpl. Dave Dewey was face-to-face with a suicidal man as he pressed a knife into his stomach. Handling the weapon, Dewey said the man repeatedly asked officers to shoot him.

They eventually persuaded him to drop the knife, Dewey said, and the man was taken to the hospital without incident.

Not all calls are so dramatic. Dewey said people sometimes throw out off-the-cuff verbal threats of self-harm as they’re taken into custody for an unrelated incident. Other times, subjects attempt to hurt officers to provoke a violent response, a phenomenon often referred to as “suicide by cop.”

Dewey helps teach a class on mental health crises at the Vermont Police Academy. Even so, he almost always thinks on his feet at these calls in the field.

“There’s so many variables in just that one type of call,” Dewey said. “You can know the person and you can know their history, but the day and what happened this morning you don’t know.”

He’s developed tactics through the years to deescalate situations. Sometimes that means building Legos with a young man with autism. Often, he’ll chat about K9 Tazor or how the Red Sox played last night.

“The end result is to try to get them the help that they need, whether it includes arresting them or simply getting them to the hospital or a conversation on the phone with somebody,” Dewey said. “Getting them the help that they need is the ultimate goal.”

While her officers are highly skilled at responding with compassion and poise in these stressful situations, Morrison believes police are often the wrong tool to address mental health needs.

“Law enforcement absolutely has to be part of that response to keep everybody safe,” Morrison said. “But when we keep sending cops as the first line of defense to deal with a medical crisis, then the system has failed.”

A mobile crisis center exists through the Howard Center but is often unable to accompany officers to calls, Morrison said. Having an expert ride shotgun as they travel to a suicide attempt would be invaluable, she said.

“There’s so many unmet social service needs in our community, and we have got to turn the ship because we’re asking the police to do far too many things,” Morrison said.

“This number needs to send a message to people that something needs to happen.”